The 2016 Oscars

After watching the Oscars last night, all I can say is thank God I did not try to predict some of the lesser known awards as I would have been very wrong. For the ones I did predict, I went 9/12, with AMY beating THE LOOK OF SILENCE, Mark Rylance winning Best Supporting Actor over Stallone (I know there would be an acting upset, I just wasn’t sure if it would be for this category), and SPOTLIGHT winning Best Picture over THE REVENANT. Overall, not good enough I would consider actually betting on future predictions, but not too bad either.

Some historic stuff went down last night: the last time a Best Picture winner won only one other award was all the way back in 1952, with THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH winning Best Picture and “Best Story,” mirroring SPOTLIGHT’s Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay wins.

Winning Best Director two years in a row has only happened twice before, the last times in 1949/1950 with Joseph L. Mankiewicz (the other was John Ford, who won in 1939 and 1940), but Alejandro G. Inarritu managed to pull it off. Unfortunately, with no films scheduled for this coming year, it does not seem like he’ll continue his streak at the next ceremony.

And, of course, last night was the first time Leonardo DiCaprio has won an Oscar, after four other acting nominations and one for Best Picture as a producer on Wolf of Wall Street.

Here are my reviews of the Oscar winning films SPOTLIGHT and THE REVENANT and a review of the nominated THE MARTIAN.

And for anyone who can’t wait to start predicting next year’s awards, plenty of websites have you covered.

Oscar 2016 Predictions

I don’t put much stock in the Oscars. I won’t search out old winners just because they won, like I will for other prizes; if I’m watching an old best picture winner, it’s because it has stood the test of time. But I love predictions, and there is no literary or film award that receives more attention from pundits than the academy awards, so I cannot help but follow each year’s speculations. And this year is particularly interesting in this regard. In years prior, the race for the top prize was between two movies, but by the time the broadcast happened, everyone was pretty sure which of the two would come away with best picture. Not so now: there are three flicks considered front runners, and while THE REVENANT has a slight edge over THE BIG SHORT and SPOITLIGHT, competition is tight and any three of these winning would not come as a surprise. And that’s not taking into account other categories.

So, without further ado, here are my predictions for the 2016 Oscars:

Best Picture: The Revenant

One movie usually sweeps the guild awards. This year, the three major prizes all went to different movies. Due to wins at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes, and a number of nominations, The Revenant is considered the frontrunner, but the other two could easily win, especially considering THE BIG SHORT won the Producers Guild Award, which has picked the best picture winner 9 times in the past 11 years. Still, THE REVENANT was one of my favorites from the past year, so I’ll stick with it.

 

Best Director: Alejandro G. Inarritu

The last time a director won this prize twice in back to back years was in the 1940s, but Inarritu, who won last year for BIRDMAN, seems poised to do just that. His closest competition, George Miller for MAD MAX, could pull off an upset, but the chances of that are extremely low.

 

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio

With Leo wracking up all the prizes leading up to the Oscars, it seems like this is his year. Most websites are not even considering the possibility of an upset by Michael Fassbender. All signs point to Leo finally not going home empty handed.

 

Best Actress: Brie Larson

The young actress has wowed many viewers, to the point where the Oscar going to anyone else would be like Fassbender winning over Leo.

 

Best Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone

If there’s an acting category this year ripe for an upset, this is it. Sylvester Stallone is predicted to get gold, but Mark Rylance in BRIDGE OF SPIES could also win. And if any of the others walk away with the prize (Mark Ruffalo, SPOTLIGHT; Christian Bale, THE BIG SHORT; Tom Hardy, THE REVENANT), it is likely their movie will win best picture. A part of me wants to root for Tom Hardy, but another part sees how unlikely that is, so Stallone it is.

 

Best Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander

Starring in two big movies this year (THE DANISH GIRL and EX MACHINA) is sure to help Vikander, even if she’s only nominated for one of them. I think an upset will occur in one of the acting categories and I feel like it might be this one, but I don’t know who would beat Vikander to the prize. Most places have Kate Winslet in second place (and Leo and Kate on stage together is an appealing idea) but I don’t think it will be her. Therefore, although I’m not convinced Vikander will win, I have no idea who could be at the podium instead of her, and so I’ll keep her on.

 

Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight

The writing in SPOTLIGHT is phenomenal. Although the rest of the film didn’t blow me away, the script is definitely deserving of Oscar recognition,

 

Best Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short

Smart and funny, it seems like this adaption of Michael Lewis’s book will win the Oscar.

 

Best Cinematography: The Revenant

Sorry, Roger Deakins, but you’ll have to wait another year for your Oscar. The REVENANT’s cinematography was amazing, to the point where even haters of the movie concede it will win this Oscar, making history as El Chivo wins his third consecutive Academy award.

 

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul

The first Hungarian film to be nominated since 1988, it looks poised to win. It also took home the Grand Prix at the Cannes Festival. When was the last time those two awards matched up?

 

Best Documentary: The Look of Silence

AMY is by far the frontrunner for this category, but THE LOOK OF SILENCE, Joshua Oppenheimer’s follow up to the acclaimed THE ACT OF KILLING, is too good for me to pass up. Also, the Academy snubbed his previous film, probably one of the most important documentaries of recent times, and it wouldn’t surprise me if academy members wanted to rectify that.

 

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out

As much as I like Anomalisa, it’s foolish to bet against Pixar.

 

As for the other categories, I either haven’t seen enough of the nominated films to make educated guesses or I am out of my league (what qualifies as Oscar worthy costumes?). Tune in tomorrow for results!

Book Review: A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe

A baby with a deformed head is born to a Japanese couple. The father, Bird, who dreams of an unencumbered life in Africa, keeps the baby’s problem a secret from his wife and conspires with a doctor to give his son weak milk to kill him. The thought of his disabled offspring drive Bird to binging on alcohol and shacking up with an old girlfriend with problems of her own. So begins Kenzaburo Oe’s A PERSONAL MATTER. Oe himself has a with brain issues, born a few months before this work appeared, and while Oe’s coming to terms with his son is probably much more mundane than the events here, it certainly adds a new dimension to the book.

Oe’s typical awkward yet poetic prose is on full display here. Disillusioned with Japanese traditions after the Second World War, he spurned his country’s conventional prose, like the understated work of Yasunari Kawabata, in favor of long sentences padded with odd and unexpected adjectives. Just look at A PERSONAL MATTER’s opening line:

Bird, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a sigh.

This is not a book meant just for those interested in Japanese literature; it was the inaugural pick at Jonathan Franzen’s book club. As such a focused image of despair, it transcends cultural boundaries, and for such depressing subject matter it is quite the page-turner. For those on the fence, it is also a small commitment, clocking in at 165 pages in my edition.

The most common criticism is the ending, with even some mesmerized by the rest of the book being disappointed upon reaching the last pages. The first time I read it, it was the only negative I could think of. As such, the rest of this review will deal with spoilers, so keep reading at your own risk.

Since Oe accepted his son’s disability in real life, it is not too surprising that Bird does the same here. After the innutritious milk fails to off the baby, Bird and his old girlfriend take him to a sketchy abortion clinic and stop at a bar for a celebratory beer before traveling to Africa when Bird has a change of heart and returns to his family life. Many have claimed that all the bad decisions and existential angst preceding this renders the ending unconvincing and out of place.

The first time I read A PERSONAL MATTER, I went through the book cover to cover one evening, utterly entranced until the ending, which made me rethink my rating from a 5/5 to a 4/5. I had even known the conclusion before I began reading and it still seemed tacked on, ranking up there with GREAT EXPECTATIONS for awful endings.

And then, a few years later, traveling through Japan, with my family, I reread it, taking my time and finishing it after a few days. I was blown away. Tons of literary references that went over my head before now made sense and deepened my appreciation for the author. His language went from odd but beautiful to measured artistic rebellion (I had not known about his reasons for incorporating bizarre metaphors and sentence structures previously). And, most importantly, the ending made sense. When Bird shows up to his job teaching at a cram school incredibly hungover and vomits in front of his class, one student threatens to report him to the headmaster, most likely resulting in a termination. Other pupils offer to cover for him but Bird refuses, insisting he must take responsibility although he cannot articulate why he feels this way. This and a few other side plots and references that I missed when I barreled the book in a few hours foreshadow the ending.

Even with this, the ending still is not a 100% fitting finale, but at least it does not seem like a passage ripped from a different novel and made enough sense in context for me to restore that missing point in my rating. Given the relatively quick composition, it’s a wonder that it is only the ending that does not perfectly fit. A PERSONAL MATTER is not a flawless novel, but it comes very close. Just be sure to take your time with it; it is deceptively dense.

Book Review: Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age by Kenzaburo Oe

Kenzaburo Oe is probably my favorite writer. Each one of his works is filled with dense, emotionally charged poeticism, and even if a book of his is not particularly gripping, by the end I am always wowed. This book is no exception.

Although some changes have been made, most of the book is rooted in reality: the reader follows the narration of a famous Japanese writer called K, who has written the same books as Oe and who has a disabled son, also like Oe. O ROUSE UP consists of K interweaving the present as his son approaches adulthood with memories, the poetry of William Blake (which serves as an important metaphor), and his own work. The result is an episodic novel (it has been described as a short story collection by its author, although all the parts do cohere) with less narrative drive than some are used to but a powerful book nonetheless.

As an Oe fan, this book is almost everything I want from one of his books. His overt philosophizing, his strange language, his description of human relationships, his mythmaking, his ability to weave all of that into a good story are all present here. But though I don’t have many complaints with this book, I would not recommend anyone start Oe here.

Why? This is a work for those who have already been introduced to him and Japanese culture. When he compares Blake to his own books, I don’t think many who aren’t already familiar with Oe to get much out of it. When he talks about a band of young political youths who united under the famous writer M, you’re supposed to be able to tell that he is referring to Mishima and an offshoot of a militia he formed. Similarly, Oe often talks about his disabled son in his literature and if this is the first time the reader is hearing about their relationship, no doubt they will miss a lot.

If you’re already acquainted with a few of his books, this will probably be a worthwhile book. If you’re looking to get into Oe, there are much better places to start. NIP THE BUDS, SHOOT THE KIDS and A PERSONAL MATTER rank among some of his most accessible, with the former, his first novel, about kids abandoned in a village durig the second world war trying to forge a life for themselves, and the latter detailing a father whose son has just been born with a brain defect and the decisions he makes. Stay tuned in the coming weeks as reviews of those two will be posted soon.

A Young Yukio Mishima

Yukio Mishima is one of the most famous Japanese writers from the 20th century. Although he authored numerous acclaimed works and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize, he is probably better known for his ritual suicide at age 45 (and was also the subject of Marguerite Yourcenar’s MISHIMA: A VISION OF THE VOID). He burst out on to the Japanese literary scene with his semi-autobiographical CONFESSIONS OF A MASK, detailing a gay man coming of age in war time Japan and hiding his feelings behind a mask, and from there wrote a number of novels (34 in total), plays, short stories, poems, and nonfiction, many of which are still read 50 years later. Often times his first drafts required little revision. Though he was a little messed in the head, he was clearly a genius.

But, although he clearly had some talent, Mishima worked very hard to get to where he was. In fact, he may be the hardest working writer I’ve ever read about. As a teenager, he focused a great deal on poetry and was capable of churning out enough material to fill a chapbook in a week. But his interests soon shifted and he began writing prose. He read the dictionary to pepper his pieces with obscure and beautiful kanji at a time when I would have failed SAT vocab tests. It’s not clear just how many short stories he wrote at this point in his life, but the number must have been rather high and he also worked on a few novellas and novels. He also produced around 9 full-length plays during these years.

At 17, some teachers at his school were so impressed with his short story “The Forest in Full Bloom” that they published it in their magazine and offered to publish it in book form, a feat all the more amazing because it happened during World War 2 when paper shortages were common. The story, written in an elegant classical Japanese, tells the story of a boy reminiscing about his ancestors. There were a couple other stories to round out the collection.

Soon after Mishima began publishing other prose in various magazines, making a decent amount of money from his writings. Another short story collection soon followed, as did his first novel, BANDITS, about aristocratic lovers with suicidal preoccupations.

Keep in mind, while he was producing all this work, he also held a full time job at the finance ministry and would only write at night, staying up late and averaging four or so hours of sleep each night. When his father began to see the toll this lifestyle was taking on Mishima, he allowed his son to quit to focus on writing—right around the same time Mishima was offered a book deal for his next novel.

Mishima spent the next three months working on his novel, finishing in early 1949. This was CONFESSIONS OF A MASK. Published that summer, it received warm reception. But did not sell well. Mishima got nervous about his decision to resign from his finance post. He could still make a bit of money from his other writings, but would it be enough?

CONFESSIONS, which is now viewed as the work that cemented Mishima as a notable writer, was far from a sensation when first released. It was only in December, when it appeared on a number of critics’ “best of” lists, that the public started to take note. And take note they did. Mishima would enjoy fame for the rest of his life.

So, he was far from a genius figure who could effortlessly produce amazing manuscripts. He spent so much time writing as a teenager that it is quite likely he had written over a million words before BANDITS (often listed as the amount of practice needed to produce something great). And even then, it still took a while for him to find popular success.

To any wannabe writers feeling down because they’ll never be good enough, remember all the writing Mishima had to do before the public took note. Sure, he was 23 when that happened, but by that time he had also written more than most people do over a lifetime. And to anyone who thinks NaNoWriMo is a waste of time because people just shovel words on to a page, remember that Mishima practically did that every single day of his life.

Book Review: I am the Wind by Jon Fosse

I have previously written about Jon Fosse and his skills as a prose writer, but this is the first play I have read by him. He is the world’s most performed living playwright, and translations of almost all his plays are available in English, but for whatever reason, he has never caught on in the English-speaking world.

With sparse dialogue reminiscent of Beckett and Pinter, this is not a play for everyone. It features two characters, The One and The Other, in a small boat in an unnamed body of water, and most of the play consists in just them talking. Their talk, ridden with pauses and unfinished thoughts, might frustrate those who want them to come right out and say what is on their mind, but that is one of the play’s big themes: the inadequacy of language.

Readers more action-minded will be pleased to know that the characters do not sit around waiting for the whole play. There is a chilling event that brings the short text to its conclusion, which, to avoid spoilers, I will not say much about other than it puts a new light on the preceding dialogue.

I must emphasize again that this is not for everybody, but for anyone who ever enjoyed Beckett or a similar writer, this is a real treat. Most of Jon Fosse’s plays are collected in volumes containing 5 or 6 plays; this is one of the few standalones. For those who want to try out Fosse but do not want to commit to a handful of works, this text is great. It is a shame Fosse is not more well known over here, although with him now being mentioned as a possible future Nobel laureate, perhaps that will soon change.

Movie Review: Boogie Nights

This movie has it all: sex, drugs, glamor, murder, Mark Wahlberg, and an amazing script and cinematography. Directed and written by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of the most acclaimed contemporary auteurs, this, his second feature film, marked him as a “big bright shining star,” to quote Wahlberg’s character.

Though the focus is on a young porn star named Dirk Diggler, played by Wahlberg, there is a large supporting cast, each with their own compelling side plots. The film follows them through the exciting 70’s until the mid 80’s, when changes in the porn industry and various excesses start catching up to them. It can get dark, particularly in the second half, but comic undertones scattered throughout prevent the story from getting too heavy, and here lies one of the movies greatest strengths: the movie flips from laugh out loud to nail bitingly tense (like the famous drug dealing scene) and makes sure none of these switches are out of place.

Despite PTA being only 27 when this was released, he clearly knew what he was doing. From the 2 minute long opening shot to the well-constructed script, already at a relatively young age PTA knew what he wanted and how to get it across on screen. The idea had been gestating in his mind for a while; it is actually an expansion of a short mockumentary film he made with friends when he was 17, called THE DIRK DIGGLER STORY. Though BOOGIE NIGHTS sheds the documentary feel and introduces a lot of new characters, the main plots in both are comparable.

If there is a flaw here, it is that some details get cut out due to the long length. At just over two and a half hours, there is not much room to stay and linger on certain side characters, and yet that is what’s needed—PTA even admitted that if there was one thing he could change, he would grant Diggler’s abusive mother more screen time. Other characters would have benefitted just a little more time in the spotlight, such as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character, who has a falling out with Diggler on screen and an apparent reconciliation off screen.

For those not turned off by the pornographic premise, this is not one to be missed, and for anyone interested in film, I’d say watch it even if the subject matter disinterests you. It is a great offering by one of the best currently working directors, with some fans (me…) even ranking it above his more famous THERE WILL BE BLOOD. It is a great addition not just to PTA’s oeuvre but also to world cinema.

Book Review: Snakes and Earrings by Hitomi Kanehara

This seems to be a very divisive book. Some people like it, a lot more hate it. I had read a bit about the book and the characters before I dove in, so perhaps because I knew what to expect I liked it more. SNAKES AND EARRINGS won the Akutagawa prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in Japan, when the author was 20, and became a best seller. It reminds me of Bret Easton Ellis or Ryu Murakami (who headed the prize committee that gave her the prize) in that the content of the book is meant to shock and confuse readers, but it is not pointless.

The plot concerns Liu, a “Barbie-girl,” who becomes infatuated with a man with a forked tongue named Ama, and decides to get a tattoo and have her own tongue forked as a result. Passions fly, murders are committed, and an odd love triangle forms between Liu, Ama, and the tattoo artist, one more grounded in possession and masochism than any form of love.

Liu needs violence to thrive. Without it, she becomes bored and depressed, a shell of what she once was. As a result, she is incredibly self-destructive, seeking out new forms of violence and never putting up any form of resistance. She does not care how much she knows about a person, only if they are violent or not. We barely learn anything about the characters as a result, only hearing about Liu’s parents in a short paragraph on page 118 of this 120 page novella. Some people might not like this, and in a longer work having less than engaging characters would get on my nerves, but here, because of its short length, it works. Many have complained about the ending and how the characters don’t act like real people, but I really didn’t mind; it fits in with the rest of the story, in my opinion. Besides, the book proves early on that its character do not act like people in the real world, expecting them to act like that at the end is negligent on the readers part.

(I actually found the ending to be the high mark of the book. After pages of sex and violence, in the last forty pages a sense of mystery, of tension forms, and it becomes impossible to put it down. And in the last few pages…I can see why the conclusion does not work for everyone, but I was blown away.)

Another common complaint is the translation. Although it is probably a stylistic choice of the author to have the characters act in ways far removed from reality, the dialogue makes them seem like paper thin dullards, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. I’m giving the author the benefit of the doubt, because most times I felt that if the dialogue was worded slightly differently, it would make complete sense. The prose is god awful, too. It’s stilted, boring, and never adequately describes anything. Given the author’s young age there are probably some hiccups with the original writing, but I find it hard to believe a work so terribly written won one of the most prestigious Japanese literary prizes and became a best seller, so I’m assuming much of the fault lies with the translation.

I’m forgiving the writing due to the ending, which takes up 1/3 of the text. It’s a great book, and a shame the translation is so awful. Hopefully another one will be made some day. As it is, anyone with an interest in Japan, Bret Easton Ellis, or Ryu Murakami will find something worthwhile here.

Book Review: Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson

This is a good book for the layperson interested in outer space. It was originally conceived as a series of essays Tyson wrote for the magazine NATURAL HISTORY, and as such treads a fine line between technical and jokey. The tone for the most part is light, with lots of humorous asides.

Some of the essay’s subjects are a bit questionable: a few cover such basic topics that anyone with a passing interest in astronomy would know about them, while others are so advanced it was tough at times to understand the physics he goes into. But for most of it Tyson hits the nail on the head and writes bits both very interesting and very educational. It does occasionally retread similar territory over and over again, but considering the compositional process for this book, it’s forgivable.

Wisely, Tyson keeps most of the focus on astrophysics, but much like Carl Sagan in Cosmos, he eventually makes his way to the history of science, and while he doesn’t talk anywhere near as much about it as Sagan, he still suffers for it. It is a bit ironic that someone so eager to dispel some scientific misconceptions so readily accepts some historical delusions, such as the Alexandria library and the dark ages (which, as anyone fascinated by history should know, really weren’t that dark). Still, this is limited to 2 or 3 of the essays, and the rest is great.

I recommend it to anyone with an interest in outer space. Just keep in mind he studied Physics, not History.

Book Review: Dream of the Red Chamber by Cao Xueqin

The Russians have Tolstoy. The Irish have Joyce. The English have Shakespeare. And the Chinese have…Cao Xueqin? Author of DREAM OF THE RED CHAMBER (varying translations have slightly different titles), his work has been incredibly popular since it was first published in the late 18th century and is still a cultural phenomenon in Asia today. This past year I taught English in China. All of the teachers knew the plot, several had read it multiple times (considering it is comparable to Proust in terms of length, rereading it is no small achievement), and some fifth graders were reading a dumbed down version. But despite this, it has never caught on overseas.

The frame story is…odd. I think there are some poetic connotations, but to a non-Chinese, a lot of these references are lost. A magical stone wishes it could experience life, so two priests give it a body so it can learn from human experience.

In an aristocratic family, an heir is born with a piece of jade in his mouth. This is Baoyu. Though readers do see him growing up briefly, the majority of the story is about him as a young adult in a love triangle between Daiyu (the one he wants) and his cousin Baochai (the one his family wants him to marry) as their family declines and falls out of favor. The book is so long, and there are so many other characters, that it is almost impossible to give a full plot summary. There are tons of side stories and despite the focus on aristocrats the book covers all areas of life.

Not all these plotlines are equal: sometimes readers will have to slog through a chapter or two, but it is always worth it. There is something for everyone: murder, love, tragedy, poetry contests, Chinese culture. That last one is especially important; this is practically an encyclopedia of 18th century China.

Interestingly, the book experiences a drop in quality towards the end. The legend goes that Cao Xueqin died before he could finish it and another writer, Gao E, tacked on his own ending.

One reason the book may never have taken off in the Western world is translation. The book is written in a special dialect, and it is impossible to bring into English the nuance that comes from writing in this special system. Numerous poems also dot the text, and in each case it is unfortunately obvious that something is lost in translation. But do not let this or the last point about the ending be a deterrent, as the work definitely survives these flaws.

There are a lot of different editions and translations available in English. The Penguin editions are the definitive English copies, but with each volume selling separately, it can be a pretty penny to go with those copies. I read the DREAM OF RED MANSIONS version available from Chinese Classics, offered as a four volume set for the reasonable price of $20. Perhaps this explains some of the translation issues, but this edition is still worth reading. If I have been harsh in listing the cons, it is only because there are too many pros to list. The Complete Review listed this as a contender for the “book of the millennium” title, and I agree completely. Though if you have the money/if your library has the copies, perhaps go with the Penguin version.